Colombia: injured GM workers continue fight

A small number of former employees of GM Colmotores, the Colombian subsidiary of the Detroit-based General Motors Company (GM), remain encamped in front of the US embassy in Bogotá more than two years after they started a campaign to get the company to reinstate them and compensate them for work-related injuries. Off-and-on talks with GM over the past year have failed to produce an agreement; the most recent was held in August. According to Jorge Parra, the president of the Association of Injured Workers and Ex-Workers of Colmotores (Asotrecol), the injured workers were laid off because of their injuries and should get the same compensation as auto workers in the US, where disabled workers can receive up to two-thirds of their salary for the rest of their lives. He says GM only offered $35,000 for each worker; company officials say they have made better offers.

"When we first came [to the embassy], they thought we would be here for a week," Parra told the US magazine In These Times. "But we're here for two years already, and we've shown that we have the determination not to give up." The protests have worn the workers down, however. Only 13 of the 68 originally in the group are still active, and they admit to being discouraged at times, despite expressions of solidarity and some financial support from US unionists. But the protest remains an embarrassment for the US government, which as a result of a 2009 federal bailout is GM's largest shareholder. The US is also concerned because of a free trade pact with Colombia which the US Congress approved in 2011 only after negotiators agreed on a detailed plan for labor protections. The situation of the laid-off GM Colmotores workers casts doubt on the effectiveness of the trade pact's labor clauses. (ITT, Sept. 13)

In other news, Charlotte, NC-based Chiquita Brands International Inc is trying to have the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals dismiss lawsuits by thousands of Colombians whose relatives were killed by paramilitaries from the rightwing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). In 2007 Chiquita admitted to having paid out $1.7 million to the AUC over seven years; the US government, which listed the group, now officially disbanded, as a terrorist organization, fined the company $25 million. The lawsuits, consolidated before a federal judge in West Palm Beach, Florida, seek to hold Chiquita liable for killings by the AUC.

The company's lawyers say the suit is without merit because the AUC extorted the payments from Chiquita and Chiquita officials didn't directly order the murders—although documents made public in 2011 indicate that the company hired the paramilitaries on as security guards, just as it had done earlier with leftist rebels when they controlled the area where Chiquita operated. Another of Chiquita's arguments is that the suit was brought under the federal Alien Tort Statute, a law from 1789 whose application the US Supreme Court severely restricted in April when it threw out the Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum case. (Star Tribune, Minneapolis, Sept. 21, from AP; La Jornada, Mexico, Sept. 22, from AP)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, September 22.

Chiquita Brands has also been implicated in human rights abuses in Central America.

  1. Chiquita Brands found liable for paramilitary terror in Colombia

    A federal jury in South Florida on June 10┬áordered Chiquita Brands International┬áto pay $38.4 million in damages┬áto survivors of paramilitary terror, finding the company┬áliable for financing the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC).┬áSeveral related cases remain pending, but Earth Rights International said in a statement: “After 17 years of legal proceedings, the first set of victims and their families have finally obtained justice.” (Jurist)